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Treating candidates fairly close to an election

This week, a reader asked about The News’ policy regarding coverage of candidates for elected office.

Specifically, the reader wondered why we ran a photo on Monday’s Lifestyles page of Sheriff Steve Kieliszewski (who has made clear he intends to run for reelection next year) giving a presentation to area Girl Scouts, when we have not run a similar photo of Terry King, the former undersheriff who has announced his intentions to run against Kieliszewski.

The concern, there, is that a photo showing Kieliszewski in a positive light — who doesn’t like Girl Scouts? — could leave voters with good feeling about him, which could help him when ballots are cast.

The News (and every other paper I’ve worked for) recognizes that concern and tries to avoid giving one candidate a leg up over another with a clear policy about equal coverage.

Our policy is this: When we get close to an election, we do not run photos or stories of one candidate performing “glad-handing” or campaign-style functions, unless we have the opportunity to run a similar photo or story of that candidate’s opponent(s).

That policy does not preclude us from running photos of a candidate if he or she is performing official functions of their elected position. If there happens to be a shooting or major accident or some other sort of emergency at which Kieliszewski is there in his role as sheriff, he’s likely to be included in any story or photo. He might also appear in the paper if he’s giving an update to the county board on the construction of the new jail, for example.

Those items are newsworthy and can’t be ignored. That’s one of the reasons they say there’s power in incumbency.

The other key caveat in that policy is that it applies close to an election. We are today still more than a year out from the first votes being cast in the sheriff’s race, and it’s unlikely any voter is going to remember a photo of the sheriff posing with Girl Scouts (that photo is more about the girls, anyway). We are likely to start paying close attention next spring to how much coverage is given to Kieliszewski over King or vice-versa.

We are only three months out from the race for the Alpena Municipal Council, however, so we’ll be careful about how we cover those candidates.

Our policy on balanced coverage applies to candidates for statewide and national office, too. As we head into the presidential contest, we will strive not to carry more Associated Press stories on one Democratic presidential nominee over another (focusing instead on broader stories on the entire field), and we will avoid running more stories on President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies than on those of the Dems’.

Again, there’s power in the incumbency, however. Trump can dominate news coverage almost any time he wants by declaring a new policy or speaking from the Oval Office. Our incumbent state reps and senators have similar power.

And, because Northeast Michigan does not get very many visits from candidates for statewide or national office, those visits that do happen can be newsworthy in and of themselves. Which is why last year you saw Tom Leonard, the Republican candidate for attorney general, on our front page, but not his Democratic opponent, Dana Nessel. However, in those instances, we always attempt to reach out to the opposing candidate for comment.

There are plenty of other situational factors.

A candidate once complained to me that I’d described him as a felon in a headline, instead of calling him a former lawmaker. He was a doctor who had represented the Lansing region in the Legislature and was later convicted of health insurance fraud. The simple reason is that voters have a right to know, right up top, that an admitted criminal wants to represent them.

A candidate in the race for Lansing mayor once complained that I’d written about how a larger percentage of her campaign cash than that of her opponent came from out of town (much of her money came from family members who had moved out of state). She’d preferred I focused instead on how much of her opponent’s campaign contributions came from lobbyists. The lobbyist donations were part of the story, but the focus of my story was to gauge how much support the candidates had from the constituents they hoped to represent.

The overriding factor in all of our coverage decisions is that we work for our readers, not our sources. We strive daily for fairness and balance, but providing our readers with the information they need and want comes first.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.